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Random Racer Roundup

Challenged to cite a random drag racer from their memory banks, dozens of NHRA fans responded to share their thoughts abut racers past and present whose accomplishments resonate with them.
08 Jan 2021
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Dragster Insider

The tweets that became a viral thread that launched a Dragster Insider column that spawned a follow-up now has an offspring. Challenged by yours truly to cite a random drag racer from your memory banks, dozens of you responded to share your picks.

Along the way, a funny thing happened. What initially was intended to just be a way to share your ability to perhaps dredge up a semi-obscure name from drag racing’s past, quickly turned into an admiration fest, with readers submitting names of racers they knew, admired, or inspired them. (Submitter’s name is in italic parenthesis, deduced as best as possible from email address; most photos are from the ND archives, but a few did submit their own.)

Here we go, in the order received. Thanks for playing!

Jack Moss, Amarillo, Texas, World War II veteran and POW, and his small-block Chevy put many of the big boys on the trailer, including Hill, Kalitta, and Langley. (Wayne Miller)

Kelly Chadwick! His was the very first Funny Car I ever saw, on the back of his ramp truck headed up the Pennsylvania turnpike in 1972! My biggest regret is that I never actually got to meet him in person, so I could tell him how much that chance brief encounter started a lifelong love of drag racing! Ramp trucks live on! (Tim Simplot)

James Warren, of the famed Warren and Coburn “Ridge Route Terrors” team. He won the first race I ever went to, the 1968 NHRA Winternationals. A great guy and a hell of a racer in the SoCal Top Fuel Wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. My favorite “touring” racer was “Kansas John” Wiebe. Car Craft magazine had a very cool article on John titled “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm After They’ve Gone 230?” I read it and immediately became a fan. Another great guy. (Mike Harris)

My favorite is my hometown racer Gordon Collett. He was from here in Portsmouth, Ohio, and even had his own speed shop here. I was in his shop many times and watched him race here at Raven Rock Drag Strip and other places.  (James Spradlin)

I'll choose Scott Geoffrion. Why? I had taken a picture of Darrell Alderman’s car (doing a burnout) in Columbus, had it enlarged, and took it to Indy for an autograph. I chased Darrell all over the track from manufacturers row to the pits a few times based on where he was "supposed to be." At the end of the day, I got Scott's autograph at the ropes, showed him the pic, and asked if he knew where I might find Darrell.  He said, "Follow me," went under the ropes and into the trailer. There he was, sitting against the air-conditioned wall, chatting with a crewmember. He graciously autographed what he said was a nice picture! Of course, thank you, Darrell, but more importantly, thank you, Scott! (Chuck Dewandeler)

My pick is Barry Kaplan. Go back to the end of 1968, San Fernando Raceway. Don Prudhomme debuts a brand-new car and qualifies for Top Fuel. Barry Kaplan in the "Super K" Jr. Fueler also qualified for Top Fuel (hey, it was Fernando). Round 1, Kaplan versus “Snake.” Halfway down, “Snake” gets sideway, shuts off, and Kaplan wins! They talked about that for weeks at the Pond. Yes, I was there, so that's why I remember it. (Cliff Morgan)

I was glad to see mention of Ron Smith as I have always loved the underdog. So, on the subject of underdogs, one name came to mind: Funny Car and Fuel Altered campaigner "Nasty" Dave Benjamin. I only saw him race a few times, and seldom did he ever qualify. But he was actually a brilliant innovator and paid his dues big time. He was burned badly a couple of times, yet never gave up. He developed three-valve heads for nitro use. He built the first dual fuel pump system way back in 1980. He built the first eight-stand, five-disc clutch back in 1989. Although he didn't have a lot of wins, his innovations and determination make for an impressive resumé. (Al Kean)

My dad and his partner, Don Mattison and Bud Roche. They both had short driving stints (that’s another story), but they employed many drivers of the Guzler over many years, a few pretty famous (Vodnik, Baltes, and many more). (Don Mattison)

Mike Fons. His deep link to Detroit and its muscle and early Pro Stock racing, both Chevy and Dodge! (Bill LaGoe)

Doc Halladay (pictured at right with Tom Hoover). Still see him at the races, always put on a good show. Always fan-friendly. (Jim Cronin)

Pete Williams, Pro Stock. I remember him because during a top-end interview, he said, “I believe in the hereafter, and I’m here after that trophy.” I do believe that he won a race at some point.  (Paul Mayernick)

How about Reggie Showers? His journey in the NHRA may not have been a long one, but he sure impressed me. Given my preference for racing on four wheels, he might be an unexpected name for me to pull up. But at the line, he would show us what he had, and not worry about what he didn't have. (Bill Lindig)

Gabby Bleeker. He was AA/FA in the early ‘60s! Won the March Meet, and many others. One night, driving along, “Greek” says, “Did I tell ya I drove Gabby’s car one time? I got out at half-track. When Gabby got there, I told him he was nuts to drive this thing.” (Michael Armstrong)

Just read your ‘random driver’ article and I wanted to contribute a couple. First, I can’t believe Richard Tharp wasn’t on the already mentioned list! Second, Butch Kernodle, who drove the All American BB/FC. Not that I cared for the looks of his Funny Car, but it’s a funny name to say, like saying NASCAR driver Dick Trickle. Third, Arne Swensen of East Coast Swensen & Lani fame. For selfish reasons, because I got to design the paint scheme for their ‘74 Vega FC when I was 16. (John Bell)

Tripp Shumake (competitive good guy), Johnny Loper (driven!), Johnny West (most resourceful racer), Raymond Godman (a personal hero), and Alison Lee (crew chief extraordinaire!). I'll stop but could go on forever on this subject. (Paul Munsey)

I live in Spokane, Wash., and growing up, our now NHRA Division 6 track was an AHRA track, and we would have the AHRA World Finals every year, where we would see the likes of John Martin, the Birky Bunch, Mr. Magoo, The Mountain Raider, “The Greek,” Teachers Pet, The Desert Rattler, Jim Dunn, Dave Benjamin, the Zip Code Fueler, Ron Smith, Craig Smith, John Shoemaker, Bobby Baldwin, and just about every other independent in the world, so I have a huge soft spot for the independent racer!

I remember being blown away when Kenny Bernstein went 301 in Gainesville in 1992, but what most people do not remember is that KB’s run was not the run of the year. The little independent match race Top Fuel team of Enriquez, Adams, and O’Dell took that honor at the Winston Finals by absolutely shattering the ceiling in the TAD record books not once but twice. By pulling the blower and mounting an injector, they ran the car like a Top Fuel car and, in my opinion, reinvigorated the A/FD car back into the T/AD class. 

When we got our first dog, we named him Enriquez because my wife would not let me name my daughter or son after Don. That pooch sadly passed, and now we have O’Dell, and soon we hope to add an auxiliary dog named Adams. This year, when Don was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, I was able to travel to Gainesville and attend the ceremony. Sadly, of course, the race was canceled, but I got to meet and chat with Don, and that was a memory I will cherish! (Paul Hagan)

Vance Hunt. As a Texas kid of the ‘60s/’70s, (yeah, I'm old), weekends I spent at Green Valley Raceway were a special treat. Hunt's beautiful black Top Fueler always impressed. Bobby Langley, too. (EC)

Richard Holcomb. You could always talk to him. Had that narrow rear-end Top Fuel car and was a low dollar operation. Believe he drained swamps, If I remember the story correctly that he told in the pits in Indy. (Audrey)

Dick LaHaie. I'm telling you stuff you already know, but here’s a man with his son, daughter, and a family friend running Top Fuel without major sponsorship, being competitive, and winning races. Qualifying, he'd make the first run, usually be in the top half of the field, and wouldn't worry about making another pass, unless he was in danger of being booted out of the field. I remember telling friends if he ever got a major sponsor, he'd win the title. January 1987, along comes Miller, and in November, he's crowned as Top Fuel champ. He knew his stuff. I remember being in Indy in ‘87. Monday eliminations he made four passes, ended up runner-up to Amato. The thing that stood out all day Monday with those four passes? He never had the blower or the heads off the engine. Every pass, he was on his back, pushing out the bearings, looking at them, and making his tuning decisions from there. I became a Larry Dixon fan because of Dick running the car. Very sad when I heard he died.  (Don Richerson Jr. )

Frank "The Beard" Bradley. Four-Second Club, multi-event winner, successful crew chief for a number of teams after retiring from driving. Always liked checking him out when he came to Englishtown for the Summernationals.  Another is Mike "The World’s Fastest Hippie" Mitchell. So much to say about him; great-looking cars, a ballsy driver. Sponsored by The Jefferson Starship (transporter was painted with album covers) and can't forget the “Impeach Nixon” sticker on the spoiler. Heard the Revolution Corvette was named after the Beatles song of the same name. (Mike Mendez)

My random racer is Mel Perry. Mel was a drag racer for Norwood Chevrolet in Warwick, R.I., in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He became my neighbor when I was 10. The first time I saw and heard that Funny Car, I was hooked and have been a huge fan of drag racing for 55 years. (Andy)

A couple of my “random” favorites from the early ‘70s: Mikio Yoshioka of the Stone T AA/FA and Don Enriquez of the Adams & Enriquez A/FD. (Jeff Reynolds)

Ace Manzo. Why? I admired him for all he did with a Chevy powerplant over the years. I got to meet him and shake his hand in Norwalk while I was helping Ray Drew in 2018. “Ace” talked to me like an old friend. (Pat Maloney)

Charlie Greco. Won Comp at the Keystones in 1993 from the 31st qualifying position. It was either during their last qualifying session or first round that Bob Frey said, "Wouldn't it be spectacular if the 32nd qualifier won Comp on Sunday?" (Robert DiMilla)

Was surprised not to see Rob Bruins mentioned by someone. Not only a former Top Fuel world champion, but he also held the national record in Comp for a while, I believe. I was fortunate enough to be on his crew for part of a season when he drove for Gaines [Markley]. He is a great guy. (Bob Stonack)

My favorite class is Pro Stock, and I am a diehard Ford guy. Therefore, my random racer is Bob Glidden! I went to every race at Sanair from 1978 to 1992. Bob always made time to chat with me. I was starstruck! It was like going to see the Rolling Stones and talking with Mick Jagger. If I get to pick a second driver, I would pick Larry Morgan. When he tried to bring Ford back, I gave him one of my drawings as a thank you. He liked it enough that he showed me around his operation, and I even met his wife. He even let me photograph him while he was working on his engine. That was really cool! (Mark Keable)

“Big Jim” Dunn, because he's still at it since 1950. Who else can claim that? This man is a living legend and a genuine badass.  (Jerry Hoving)

Doorslammer driver Johnny Labbous, aka “The Loose Caboose,” simply because he was our local dragstrip hero when I lived in Chattanooga back in the ’70s and ‘80s. I believe he won a few NHRA races and maybe a championship or two. He was unbeatable at our local track. There was a guy named Raymond King (“King’s Ransom”), who would beat him from time to time. Both of us left Tennessee, and I’m guessing Johnny is retired now. (Jim Walterhouse)

I would nominate Allen “Bootsie” Herridge from the UK. He was involved in UK drag racing from its early days until his untimely and probably avoidable death at the wheel of a jet Funny Car he was testing at Santa Pod in November 1985. He never had much money but was adept at getting the best out of what he could afford and was always ready to help out fellow racers with advice, equipment, or expertise. In his later career, he raced with the help of Roy and Bob Phelps exclusively at Santa Pod Raceway in both Top Fuel and Funny Cars, either built by himself or latterly imported from the USA. He would chat with anyone and anybody and impart his immense wealth of knowledge without hesitation, not wanting or needing any recognition, just happy in the fact he was encouraging and occasionally guiding other budding drag racers. Truly a drag racer’s drag racer. (Graham Warley)

Don Gay. Nice cars, were Pontiac, and we have the same last name. Still have a Don Gay Jr. T-shirt.; really gets looks when I wear it to a Reading national event. (David Gay)

My random drag racer pick is Gary Burgin, the Orange Baron AA/FC. He was a hard-running and successful racer at both NHRA national events and on the match race circuit. He put on a good show with stout e.t.s and those long, smoky burnouts on a summer night! (Johnny Guzevich)

Butch Blair. March Meet winner, Nostalgia Top Fuel winner, toured Japan with NHRA, and one of the best-named cars in the sport. Blair’s Fugowie (Lost Tribe Racing) stayed on the car until the very end. (Dave Cox)

This is an easy choice: Leonard Hughes. Why? Because the first nitro-burning anything I ever saw run was a red Candies & Hughes Barracuda Funny Car at Eastex Dragway in Porter, Texas, in the spring of 1968, tuned, driven, and partly owned by the bayou legend. The sound and the fury totally blew me away! Then, in the pits later that day, Leonard took the time to talk to a fascinated 12-year-old about supercharging and nitromethane. I was hooked forever. To top things off, Leonard remembered me and took the time to speak to me again the next year at the inaugural NHRA national event at Dallas International Motor Speedway in the spring of 1969. Then, it happened again at DIMS in 1970, where he also took the time to introduce me to Paul Candies! How do you ever forget someone like that? (Jack Muller)

My random racer shoutout, while it does involve two racers, Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen, is for their sponsor, Mattel. This company, through the great marketing mind of McEwen, has introduced the sport through their Hot Wheels Snake and Mongoose Funny Car sets to a countless number of children (me being one) who are now grown and following and competing in the NHRA. If I'm correct, Mattel was the first company ever to sponsor an NHRA national event (the Mattel Hot Wheels Supernationals in 1970 at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway). (Ricky Farrow)

I’ll go with Frank “the Beard” Bradley. Always had a beautiful car and a snarky remark for the announcers, as did Pro Stocker Tony Christian (“Have you thumped a Ford lately?” Referring to a rare win over Bob Glidden). Top Fuel drivers Earl Whiting, the lumberjack from the northwest, and “Pontiac” Jack” Ostrander. Jack owned a bowling alley! Fun stuff. (Martin Parlo)

How about John Bradley, the flathead king? First saw him race at Colton back in the ‘50s. Saw him beat the Speed Sport sidewinder in Top Fuel one Sunday. His flathead-powered cars were amazing. (Jim Buxton)

My pick is the unknown Pro Stock and Super Comp driver Michael Ingram from West Palm Beach, Fla. Here's why... 

Starting out in the 1970s, he was given a chance as a driver when the owner of the Gold Coast Duster (former Sox & Martin Duster) became too big to be competitive. The then-15-year-old had his brother (18) lie and take the NHRA physical and license test. Known as the “Hired Gun,” he proceeded to run at the original Palm Beach International Raceway, the first Gators, and with the Gold Coast Pro Stockers, amassing numerous round-wins but never a victory. After the owner shut down his operation in the late ‘70s, Michael left South Florida for a few years to become a wrecker operator in Alaska. 

Then, while visiting a friend on a vacation home, turned him on to bull riding. As Michael said to me, “In eight seconds, I could win $8,000!” It was a no brainer for me when my dad, an engineer for Pratt & Whitney, was only making $400 a week. Then the turn for the worst happened. While enjoying the winnings of his successful riding career with some friends, he flipped a three-wheeler and broke his neck, and was paralyzed from the neck down. Given no hope of walking, having children, or leading an ordinary life, Mr. Ingram formed the bright idea in Jackson Memorial Hospital (the same hospital that would later hold Darrell Gwynn) that he would walk out of there and return to driving. After five long-fought years, he did (albeit with a walker). Broke and with medical bills higher than the GDP of some small countries, he sought work but, limited by his own body, it was hard to come by. The same friend whose three-wheeler he flipped put him into an excavator and sent him to work cleaning canals in South Florida.

With a little cash in his pocket, he sought out a small chassis builder named Frank Castilanno who would allow him to build his own car by hand. He agreed to rent out a bay in his shop and teach the man they affectionately called “Lurch” around the shop the how-tos of building a Super Comp dragster. Through ‘88 and ‘89, with only hand tools and help from friends, family, and some enemies, a florescent pink chassis emerged, wrapped in a florescent blue, white, pink, and yellow body with the name "Physical Therapy" emblazoned on the side. 

On a cool test and tune evening at the Moroso Motorsports Park, a confused Lex Dudas looked over an application for a license. Everything looked normal — the car, equipment, the driver. Check. Physical. Check. License runs. Check. Until Mike attempted to walk up the 25 steps of the timing tower, that is when an eyebrow or two popped up. A man that walks on spasticity alone climbed up and signed his name. The rest is history. (Kyle Ingram)

 

Thanks again everyone for playing. I hope this first column of the New Year puts a smile on your face; I know we can all use some. 

Thanks also again for the incredible love, passion, patience, and support you have poured my way over the past 800 or so columns. It’s what keeps me going and hopefully gives you all something to look forward to when times are tough. Stay safe.

Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]

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